Major steps being taken to end the ‘book famine’

By Dao Thu Huong, UNDP Viet Nam, Mao Meas, UNDP Cambodia, and Kazuyuki Uji, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

December 1, 2022

Dao Thu Huong, UNDP Viet Nam’s Disability Inclusion Officer (center), walks with a white cane with colleagues.

UNDP Viet Nam

The Greek philosopher Plato once said, “Knowledge is the food of the soul.” Expanding access to knowledge can enrich the soul and benefit the lives of millions of persons with disabilities across countries, many of whom face exclusion, discrimination, and poverty. 

The World Blind Union estimates that over 90 percent of all published works are inaccessible to people who are blind or partially sighted. As a result, people who cannot read printed materials (persons with print disabilities) have long been left behind, deprived of making the most of human development opportunities, including education, employment, and political, economic, and cultural participation. In particular, women with disabilities are among the most marginalized and left furthest behind.  

This so-called book famine is widespread in developing countries, despite the proliferation of information technology. The book famine connotes a severe lack of access to published works, including school textbooks in formats accessible by persons with ‘print disabilities,’ who cannot read printed works in conventional ways because they are blind, partially sighted or dyslexic, or because they cannot hold a book or turn a page due to physical disabilities including paralysis. Therefore, they need accessible formats such as braille, audio, or electronic books.

To end the global book famine, world leaders adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled (‘the Marrakesh Treaty’), which entered into force in 2016. The Marrakesh Treaty aims to improve access to published works for persons with print disabilities by removing copyright-related legal barriers at the national and international levels. (To learn more about the Marrakesh Treaty, read our Issue Brief)

December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a theme of “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world.” The Marrakesh Treaty fits into the theme perfectly, as the Treaty aspires to transform our world for greater disability inclusion, accessibility, and equity through legal innovation.

Effective implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty can bring about groundbreaking changes. Today, for instance, persons with print disabilities in India, the first country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty in 2014, have access to almost 5 million books “that can be read with eyes, ears or fingers” compared with only about 200-300 books before the ratification, according to India DAISY.

Embracing the vision of better education, employment, and social inclusion for persons with print disabilities, since 2014, UNDP has provided technical support in raising awareness about the book famine, developing national capacities for ratification and implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty, and informing legal reforms in partnership with governments and disability communities. UNDP successfully supported Thailand and Indonesia in joining the Marrakesh Treaty in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Currently, UNDP is providing technical support in Cambodia and Viet Nam. These two ASEAN countries have recently made significant strides toward improving accessibility for the print disabled.

This year, Viet Nam made a major advancement toward its accession to the Marrakesh Treaty. In June 2022, Viet Nam’s National Assembly passed an amendment of the Intellectual Property (IP) Law. The new IP law incorporates key provisions of the Marrakesh Treaty that would enable and facilitate the creation, distribution, and cross-border exchange of published works in accessible formats. Viet Nam’s accession to the Marrakesh Treaty was accelerated when the President signed the country’s proposal dossier on 1 November to be submitted to the World Intellectual Property Organization, a UN agency and the custodian of the Marrakesh Treaty. 

To support the legal reform process in Viet Nam, UNDP provided a range of technical support. These included an analysis of the previous IP law, a review of the draft amendment and specific recommendations to make the law aligned with the Marrakesh Treaty. This technical support was made possible this year thanks to the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD) Joint Programme, and accompanied by capacity-building opportunities for government officials, the disability community, and legal professionals. 

Ms. Chenda, a Cambodian civil servant with visual impairment working at the Disability Action Council Secretariate, walks using a white cane, guided by tactile paving.

Disability Action Council Secretariat

UNDP is currently supporting the review of a draft decree for the operationalization of the new IP law, including provisions on the copyright exceptions for persons with print disabilities. The most commendable achievement was Viet Nam’s submission of the instrument on acceding to the Marrakesh Treaty on 6 December 2022 to the Director of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which widely opened the door to the global body of knowledge for Vietnamese persons with print disabilities.

Cambodia is also making progress: the Marrakesh Treaty has been incorporated into a draft bill to amend the country’s Copyrights and Neighboring Rights Act. The draft bill contains provisions aligned with the Marrakesh Treaty and is currently under review by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The passage of the amendment will bring Cambodia closer to its ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty.  

UNDP played a pivotal role in advocating the inclusion of the Marrakesh Treaty in the bill and also in the country’s National Disability Strategic Plan 2019-2023. UNDP will continue its support toward the ratification and implementation, such as through the formation of a national taskforce on the Marrakesh Treaty, to be co-facilitated by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, which is the custodian of the Copyright Act, and the Disability Action Council, which is the country’s nodal agency for disability affairs. 

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities reminds us that much more needs to be done to end the book famine, and to achieve an equitable, inclusive, and just society, as envisioned by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.